Cite

Peacemakers

The Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia (1992-1993)

By: Ryan Goldsworthy

Content Warning

The content of this article discusses topics of extreme violence in relation to human rights violations in Somalia during the early 1990s. This content is disturbing and readers should proceed with caution. If you believe that the reading of this article may be triggering or traumatizing, then please forgo it.

Background to the Somalia Mission

In 1991, the government of Somalia, a country located in the Horn of Africa, collapsed. This collapse resulted in a brutal civil war between warring factions led by warlords. For the Somali people, the civil war led directly to a severe famine and the displacement of millions, causing a great humanitarian crisis.

Somali children stare through razor wire. Image courtesy of J.L. Granatstein & Dean F. Oliver’s “The Somalia Affair ” in Canadian Military History and The Canadian War Museum.

In response to the crisis, and to help alleviate the starvation and suffering, the United Nations Security Council authorized a humanitarian aid mission called United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM I) in April 1992. The operation, however, was largely a failure as it lacked the strength required to control and defend the humanitarian relief supplies, which had been subject to thievery and looting from locals and armed bandits. As a result of these difficulties, in November 1992 the UN authorized the US-led Unified Task Force (UNITAF) to intervene.

UNITAF was created as a rapid military intervention comprised of 23 nations, including Canada. Its purpose was to restore order in Somalia, achieve and enforce a ceasefire between the warring factions, and restore the flow of humanitarian supplies to the people who needed them.[i] The soldiers of UNITAF were authorized to use deadly force if necessary to neutralize and disarm members of the various Somali factions.[ii] These armed Somali bandits were often equipped with mobile anti-aircraft guns, automatic weapons, and other small arms and explosives that even in untrained hands could inflict significant damage on UNITAF troops.

UNITAF was able to fulfill its purpose quite quickly, at least temporarily, as 14 Somali factions agreed to a ceasefire and pledged to hand over their weapons to UNITAF in January 1993. Following a national reconciliation conference that formalized these agreements between all parties, in March 1993 the UN authorized a follow-up operation to UNOSOM I and UNITAF known as UNOSOM II. The soldiers who had formed UNITAF remained in Somalia and continued to enforce the peace, maintain order, disarm factions, and assist the flow of humanitarian aid under UNOSOM II.

Unfortunately, in June, one of the most powerful Somali factions, led by Muhamad Faarah Aideed, reneged on the agreed-upon commitments and began attacking and killing UN personnel who were trying to disarm its forces. This led to escalating armed combat between UNOSOM II troops and Aideed’s forces, culminating in the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993. In this battle, US Army Rangers sustained heavy casualties and the bodies of the American war dead were subject to dragging through the streets and other despicable acts. These shocking events were largely caught on film and then broadcast on North American television networks, which strongly turned public opinion and official policy against continued efforts in that entire region. In fact, the poor results in Somalia have often been cited as a reason that the UN Security Council did not intervene during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 or in other subsequent conflicts in Africa, a reluctance known as the “Somalia Syndrome.”[iii]

Today, students and the general public might be most familiar with the UN’s Somalia intervention through the events portrayed in the Hollywood movie Black Hawk Down (2001). Black Hawk Down dramatized the events of the Battle of Mogadishu that eventually led to the withdrawal of US Forces and the end of UNOSOM II in general. The Somalia Civil War continues to this very day.

Canada and the Somalia Mission

The Canadian involvement in the Somalia mission has long been misunderstood. The Canadian narrative of the Somalia mission has largely been dominated by one significant incident – the torture and murder of a captive Somali teenager, Shidane Arone, at the hands of two Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR) members in March 1993. The inquiry into Arone’s murder, the legal proceedings against the perpetrators, the ensuing public backlash, and the ultimate disbandment of the CAR in 1995 has become known  as the “Somalia Affair. Though this affair remains one of the darker and more transformative chapters of Canadian military history, there is much more to the overall mission in Somalia that must be explored and understood.[iv] This article will focus on Canada’s role and experiences in the Somalia Mission, especially through the lens of one chaplain (or “padre”) who served there.

The Canadian mission statement for Somalia read as follows: “The Canadian Joint Forces Somalia will provide, as part of the Unified Task Force, the secure environment necessary for the distribution of humanitarian supplies in Somalia.”[v] This statement might seem straightforward, but it is also quite vague, and it did not account for the length or the full scope of the mission.

Canadian Armed Forces in Somalia, 1992.

As a part of UNITAF, Canada deployed over 1,400 service personnel to Somalia in 1992, a military group that was primarily composed of the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment. The CAR had a proud and distinguished history, rooted perhaps most strongly in the memory of the Second World War (WWII) and the regiment’s disruptions of German operations during the Normandy campaign of 1944. As a result of severe budgetary cuts in the decades following WWII, the robust Canadian armed forces of the 1940s was but a distant memory by the 1990s.

The CAR was chosen as the nation’s rapid intervention force in Somalia not only because of its elite military reputation, but also because it was “the only suitable combat unit not already deployed, recovering from a deployment, or preparing for one.”[vi] Canadian forces began arriving in Somalia in December 1992, and they established a camp near a tiny speck on the map known as Belet Huen.

Among these 1,400 Canadians was Captain Mark Sargent, a military chaplain in the CAR. In July 2023, this author sat down with Mark Sargent at the Royal Canadian Military Institute (RCMI) in Toronto, where Mark spoke about his experiences at length for the first time ever on camera. An airborne padre such as Mark Sargent is a very visible and trusted member of the regiment, a non-combatant but a fully qualified jumper and very much a part of the group. Captain Sargent joined the regular force in 1990 and he served in Somalia for the full duration of the Canadian mission between November 1992 and June 1993. He made it clear that though the CAR had prepared and trained for the mission under a “peacekeeping mandate,” they were not ultimately sent to Somalia as peacekeepers, but as peacemakers. A peacekeeping mission, which requires states to settle their disputes by peaceful means, falls under Chapter VI of the UN’s Charter. In contrast, a peacemaking mission, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, enables the security council to “take coercive action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and actions of aggression.”[vii] In other words, a Chapter VII mission grants the use of force to military personnel in securing and enforcing operational objectives.

Two weeks prior to the regiment’s journey to Africa, as Canadian military vehicles were being loaded onto transport ships in Montreal, the mission “very quickly” shifted from the more humanitarian-driven mandate of UNOSOM I to the military enforcement of UNITAF. The rules of engagement were changed at the last minute (chiefly regarding the use of force), and the scope of the mission would never be well-defined. Mark recalls the regiment hastily scrubbing the UN markings from their equipment and vehicles, repainting them with the Airborne’s Pegasus, and then donning their iconic maroon berets to better reflect this sudden shift. Despite the peacekeeping training and preparations that had been made, there were no blue helmets or blue berets as a part of the Canadian mission in Somalia. Summing this up, Mark notes that “it was a challenge to take this group of men and women that had been trained to do one thing and literally within days say ‘no, no, it’s going to be different now.’” This shift from peacekeeper to peacemaker, in Mark’s estimation, did not shift the mindset of the average Canadian who, because of the media coverage, might have been surprised or even shocked to learn that Canadians were carrying and seizing guns in Somalia.

This very fast change to the mission foreshadowed the many unexpected challenges that the Canadians would face once their boots were on the ground in East Africa. 

No Government and No rule of Law

Once the Canadians arrived in Africa, they were instantly faced with the realities of their austere living conditions. Belet Huen was in the desert of central Somalia, far from the coast and about 350km north of the capital Mogadishu. The Canadian encampment in Belet Huen lacked structures, facilities, and even running water and electricity for the first two months. As Mark described it, “the people were initially inquisitive and then many became hostile, but the nature and the climate were consistently hostile.” Living in 50 to 55-degree heat, Canadian service personnel survived on high-sodium rations, and they slept in “improvised shelters” (sand dugouts with a poncho stretched over top) or cramped “4-man” tents that were quickly worn down by the blistering sands whipped up by the relentless winds. Scorpions the size of lobsters and spiders as big as your hand skittered throughout their camp. Personal hygiene took a plunge because bathrooms were simply waterless porta-potties baking in the desert sun, while medical personnel did not even have water to sanitize their equipment. Consider also the invisible effects of isolated living in the desert under these conditions, especially as Canadian soldiers were only rarely and briefly able to communicate with their loved ones at home. Sanitation and healthcare (mental and physical) are the most basic supports for which an army must be responsible, and these were not taken care of satisfactorily for the Canadians in Somalia.

Canadian Airborne Regiment members on patrol in Somalia, 1993. Image courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada & Department of National Defence ISC93-37.
A Canadian serviceman ‘giving five’ to a Somalian child at a refugee camp. Image courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada & Department of National Defence ISC93-10153.

The supply line for getting required supplies to the Canadians in Belet Huen was also a great obstacle. Supplies arrived from Canada at Nairobi (Kenya) or Mogadishu and then had to be transported out to Belet Huen from there. Requests for essential supplies sometimes took weeks or longer to fulfill, forcing personnel to prioritize fuel, food, ammo, or medical supplies. Despite the conditions and the issues with getting supplies, the Canadians “performed amazingly well,” according to Mark, and morale remained “strong” in the face of these kinds of challenges.

Of course, then there was the mission itself. Soldiers there were reportedly “confused as to the nature and scope of the mission.” This confusion was understandable given the total collapse of the Somali government and the Chapter VII operation that the Canadians found themselves dropped into at the last minute, without a clear mission scope. The overarching Canadian role in Somalia was to create conditions for peaceful discussions amongst the clans and the government. However, as Mark rightly tells us: “There really was no government. There was no rule of law. So, anything we were supposed to do that involved the local government agency wasn’t there.” As a result of this situation, members of the CAR were not anchored to negotiations or dealings with officials, but rather had to deal with different clan leaders and elders who did not recognize statements or agreements made by those outside of their own group.

Mark noted the challenges the Canadians faced in working with a very different culture and an apparent and jarring disconnect between the local Somalis and the Geneva Conventions (or the principles for the treatment of human beings during war).[viii] For example, Canadian patrols would frequently discover and then take great lengths to transport injured, ill, or diseased Somalis to local medical centres. However, once arriving at these centres, the patient was most often dumped off the stretcher and refused treatment by Somali medical staff because “he’s not our clan.”

The CAR was a military force designed to “quiet down” a sector, not to work through the harsh moral dilemmas and complex local politics, cultures, and languages as they were compelled to do in order to enforce a tenuous peace in Somalia. They were soldiers first and foremost.

The Photo: Context Matters

As the weeks turned into months, tensions between the Canadians and the local Somalis began to escalate. Many of the Somalis had expected that the Canadians would build lasting infrastructure in the region, but this was never part of the plan. Once it became clear that the Canadians would not be building infrastructure, the local disillusionment and continued suffering soon led to incessant break-ins and looting of supplies from the Canadian encampment. The looting became worse and worse over time. Despite a large and imposing fence surrounding the Canadian camp, three stories high and topped with razor wire, Somali children and young people continually found gaps large enough to squeeze through. The airborne rarely had the resources to spare bodies for perimeter patrols, and only two military police officers (MPs) were assigned to the mission (down from the expected eight). The CAR was permitted to use force against looters and thieves, but as Mark noted, “what Canadian soldier’s going to shoot a child because they’re stealing water bottles?” Transporting the young thieves back into town most often resulted in their returning to steal again although, in at least one horrifying instance, locals stoned the thieves to death. With no local police, no judges, no court, and finite resources themselves, Canadian soldiers had little recourse after apprehending thieves caught inside their camp.

This leads us to the story behind one the most indelible images from the Somalia mission, which happens to feature Mark Sargent standing watch over several captive and blindfolded Somali youths near the Canadian encampment. The optics of this photo, especially through the lens of Canadian values, could be troubling. But a photograph presented without proper context can entirely misrepresent or obscure the truth.

“Canadian Airborne Regiment, Chaplain Capt. Mark Sargent Behind a Group of Bound and blindfolded Somali Civilians.” Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

This photo, snapped by a Dutch civilian photographer, is cropped from a larger scene in Belet Huen. The bound youths had stolen part of the last Canadian helicopter fuel pump, a theft that had a major trickle-down effect. The helicopter could not longer be fueled, which meant no more tactical air support and no more transportation to the larger hospital in Mogadishu. The Canadians had approached the local elders with this problem, who advised a much harsher form of justice against the young thieves – going as far to handing Mark a machete with the implication that he should cut off their hands. Of course this was no option. The interpreters suggested that the Canadians put “I’m a thief” signs around the children’s necks to publicly shame them as a future deterrent for them and others. Of all possible outcomes, this was perhaps the most sensible solution in that context. Indeed, for his actions in Somalia, Captain Mark Sargent was awarded the Chief of the Defence Staff Commendation.

Conclusions

The United Nations Somalia Mission, like all UN missions since 1948, was loosely guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is important to note that UN personnel were not with the Canadians in Belet Huen, but that their mission presence was only in Mogadishu. This author asked Mark about whether the UDHR was a consideration for himself and the other 1,400 Canadians in Somalia, and he answered:

…all the [UN] declarations, statements, and conventions are important, in that they lay out for us goals and objectives that our humanity strives for. But I think it’s a little bit like sausages as well. People find sausages really tasty. They don’t want to stand around and look at how they’re made. So, there was not a lot of discussion on universal rights, and that doesn’t mean that the soldiers weren’t very, very aware of it.

Mark went on to describe a harrowing moral dilemma that speaks to the considerable challenge that Canadians faced with issues related to human rights in Somalia. In this example, the Canadians soon discovered that many young women were dying from sepsis (infections) because of female genital mutilations performed by locals wielding a shard of glass or the lid of a pop can. This brutal practice could not be stopped. “We tried everything,” said Mark. The Canadians set up small clinics to treat women with these injuries or infections, but they were largely unsuccessful as local men would physically attack women in the queues to these clinics.  In response, the Canadian medics began to put together and disseminate surgical kits so that at least these young women would not be murdered in the process of an unpreventable and widespread practice. Foreign Affairs discovered that the Canadians were handing out these kits and it was completely shut down. In recalling these disturbing events, Mark delivered his emotional verdict on young soldiers thrust into considering such issues: “those are questions that you don’t ask a kid with a grade 10 education.”

At the end of our interview, this author asked Mark about the legacy of Somalia and what the takeaways are for young Canadians and students learning about it. He answered that:

…everything is not as you read and are told… and that the men and women who made those decisions and did those things in that far away place were only a few years older than they would be right now… And what would you do? What would you do in the [case of] female circumcision? … And do you know your Canadian values enough that you could hold on to them and that would be your lifeboat, because you cannot become aggressive towards someone else’s stand… But we were there. We tried. We invested ourselves. Canada took the best it had and put it in a very difficult place.

Somalia Medal. Image courtesy of Veterans Affairs Canada.

As for the lasting impact of the UN mission in Somalia, it is difficult to ascertain. We know that the civil war continues to this day and that peace was not ultimately achieved. The Canadian camp in Belet Huen was torn apart and returned to the sand one day after the soldiers left. Much of the work done by Canadians in Somalia and its impact was also intangible or unquantifiable. It is especially challenging to quantify “success” in this mission because it was never well-defined.[ix] We are now seeing similar questions asked of the Afghanistan mission’s legacy.

Changing the Somalia mission at the last minute did not work, but the Canadian soldiers in Somalia, by and large and subtracting one major aberration, did exactly what should have been expected from the CAR. One “significant incident” should not continue to dominate the entire narrative and the work done by the Canadians who served with distinction as a part of that very difficult mission. A total of 1,427 Somalia Medals have been awarded to Canadian soldiers who served for at least 90 days in that mission – a medal awarded specifically for “honourable service.”[x]

Perhaps a lasting “peace” is not something that ever could have been “made” in that context. Or at least, in Mark’s words, “peace never grows unless it’s planted in justice.”

For his part, returning to Canada in June 1993, Mark “was just never so happy to come home.”


[i]United Nations Operations in Somalia II (UNOSOM II) – DELIVERANCE,” Department of National Defence – Government of Canada (2018).

[ii] David Bercuson, Significant Incident: Canada’s Army, the Airborne, and the Murder in Somalia, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc, 1996), pg. 3.

[iii] Darren C. Brunk, “Curing the Somalia Syndrome: Analogy, Foreign Policy Decision Making, and the Rwandan Genocide,” in Foreign Policy Analysis Vol. 4, No. 3 (JULY 2008), pg. 301-320.

[iv] For a background on the Somalia Affair, see “Somalia Affair,” Canadian Encyclopedia.

[v] Bercuson, Significant Incident, pg. 2.

[vi] JL Granastein and Dean Oliver, “The Somalia Affair: The Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History,” in Canadian Military History, vol. 22 issue 4 (2013), pg. 59.

[vii]Applying Chapters VI and VII of the United Nations Charter in the Cyber Context,” UNIDIR (May 2021).

[viii] While Somalia was a state who ratified the Geneva Conventions I-IV in 1962, they have not ratified the subsequent amendment Protocols (I-III) which relate, among other things, to the protection of civilian victims of international and non-international conflicts. See: “The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols,” International Committee of the Red Cross (October 2010).

[ix] For the importance of defining and measuring success in Canadian military operations, see: Ryan Goldsworthy, “Measuring the success of Canada’s Wars: The Hundred Days Offensive as a Case Study,” in The Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2013), pg. 46-56.

[x]Somalia Medal,” Department of National Defence – Government of Canada (March 2024).